My Teen Isn’t Ready For College. What Now?

Many high school seniors are just not quite academically or socially prepared for being away from home on their own at college. This is completely normal, particularly with students who have learning differences. Since students with learning differences are often developmentally behind their peers by an average of two years, your 18-year-old may really be more like a 16-year-old. And most 16-year-olds are not ready to be on their own at college! So if your teen is not ready for college the first thing to do is not to panic. It is much better for your teen to not go to college right away than to go before they’re ready and fail. There is a high emotional and self-esteem cost (in addition to lost tuition) to failing in the first year of college. If you can avoid that, all the better.

It can be tricky to approach a discussion about a gap year with students who have learning differences because most students in high school with significant learning differences just want to be like everyone else. They want to go to college just like all their friends are going to college. The immediate reaction they’re going to have when you bring up a gap year is that you don’t think they can go to college. So this conversation has to be handled carefully.

I find it’s a lot more challenging to have students think positively about a gap year if you take the four-year college option totally off the table. This is why I like to create a “hybrid” college list with students who have learning differences that has a mix of traditional four-year colleges, a few gap programs, and a few other specialized program ideas all customized to the individual student. This allows me to facilitate that discussion with the student organically. Most of the time, students will apply to appropriate traditional four-year colleges and then defer their enrollment if they decide to take part in a gap year or other program. This way they have a solid plan in place and they can feel like everyone else.

When most people imagine a gap year, they envision backpacking across Europe. That’s one option. But there are so many other options as well - a gap year can be almost anything. What you first need to determine when thinking about a gap year is why your student is not ready to go away to college. What is the problem you’ll be trying to solve during your student’s time before they go away to college? Does your student need to boost academic skills only? Or are social skills and independent living skills what are most needed? Or is it both?

If your student needs to strengthen her academic skills, you have several options to choose from.

  • Community college: this can be a great option in many areas, but how supportive the environment of community colleges are varies greatly by parts of the country. You really need to do your research to figure out if attending classes at your local community college would be helpful or if it might be counterproductive. Your local community college might be very “learning friendly” with professors who are supportive and administrators who care about students, but it also might be the opposite. It’s important to do your research.

  • Supportive academic program at a small college: if strengthening academic skills is the main goal, attending a more supportive small college for a year to give your student the ability to get her academic skills up to grade level and then transferring to a more competitive four-year college might be a good option.

  • Local college: another idea is to take a reduced course load (such as taking only two courses) at a small, local college to allow your student to get more familiar with the academic demands in college while living at home.

  • Specialized academic support programs: some of these are affiliated with colleges and they are focused on helping students learn how to learn, set goals, improve executive functioning skills. These are expensive but tend to produce strong results - and they address both academic and social skills.

If the goal of the gap year is mostly social and independent living skills, there are lots of options because you’re not concerned about how to get college credit. When looking at programs and thinking about ideas, you do need to evaluate them based on your individual student’s interests, needs, and challenges. For example, a travel program where students move around a lot might be too stressful for a student who struggles with adjusting to change. The goal of the gap year is setting up your student for success so making sure the environment of any program or situation you choose sets them up for success and has any necessary supports they need is critical. That’s why it’s so important to do your research.

Here are some of the most common ways students spend gap years to increase their social and independent living skills.

  • Group program away from home: if your student needs help gaining social skills and independent living skills, traditional gap year programs work pretty well for many students. There are some programs that focus solely on helping your student developing independent living skills.

  • Organized Travel Program: these are typically expensive and more and more of them have college credit, which typically ends up being elective credit. These programs are usually one semester. If the student is taking a year, they might do two programs. The drawback of these programs is that they’re expensive.

  • Volunteering: doing some kind of service in an organized program either in your own community or another community is a great way to develop social and other skills. Targeting an area of particular interest for your student makes the experience even more meaningful.

  • Internships: Students can either get an internship on their own in your town or where a relative lives, or they can take part in a program that matches students with internships. Some of these structured programs even help students develop independent living skills.

College MatchPoint has successfully placed students with ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia, depression, and anxiety into colleges across the country. 

Lisa Bain Carlton is a national expert in college placement for students with learning disabilities and/or mental health issues. She speaks regularly on this topic and is often sought out by other consultants to assist with complex cases. In addition, Lisa is an instructor in UC Irvine's College Consulting Certificate program, teaching a course for new consultants interested in working with students who learn differently. She is part of a select group of educational consultants who hold the Learning Disabilities designation through IECA. Beyond credentials, Lisa and her team wholeheartedly care about the students they work with—and they advocate tirelessly on behalf of their students and families.